At their first full press conference since Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal broke, the carmaker’s top executives admitted to a company culture that tolerated rule-breaking, landing VW in its worst-ever crisis.
Speaking to reporters in Wolfsburg, Germany, VW Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch said “the last two and a half months have been unprecedented for the VW group,” referring to the Sept. 18 revelations that Volkswagen had manipulated 11 million vehicles worldwide to pass diesel emissions tests.
“No one here could imagine that our company, where so many people do their best, which is a source of such pride for Wolfsburg, could end up in such a position,” Pötsch said.
‘Chain of mistakes’
The 64-year-old chairman said he expected the internal investigation to conclude soon. The external probe, however, which is headed by legal firm Jones Day, was likely to run “well into 2016.”
Investigators are mulling through 102 terabytes of data, Pötsch said. That’s the equivalent of 50 million books. He added that inspectors had also confiscated some 1,500 smartphones and computers from 400 employees, with a total of 2,000 employees having been ordered to not lose any data.
“We’re not talking about a one-off mistake, but a whole chain of mistakes,” said Pötsch.
He also insisted that no one, regardless of their rank, would be spared. VW has already suspended nine staff so far over the cheating. He would not, however, name any names due to the ongoing investigation.
‘Huge logistical challenge’
Signalling just how seriously VW is treating the incident, CEO Matthias Müller said engineers had “quite literally” worked days and nights to solve the issue of fixing the rigged vehicles.
He said the company would roll out the recall of millions of cars next month, beginning with the 2-liter TDI engines and followed by the 1.2-liter version, both of which would only need a software update. The 1.6 TDI, however, required more work, and would need to be retrofitted with a “flow transformer.”
Müller called the procedure “a huge logistical challenge,” especially in the US where tighter regulations meant the process would be “more complicated” than in Europe.
Winning back trust
Looking forward, Pötsch pledged to clean up Volkswagen’s act, saying the company had already taken several steps to provide more transparency. To this end, VW’s head said all future emissions tests of the group’s 12 brands would be verified internally and externally. He also said the company would introduce road tests to reflect real-world driving conditions, thus providing a more realistic picture of carbon emissions and fuel usage.
“Winning back trust is our top priority and our top challenge,” stressed Pötsch.
But this is likely to be an uphill battle for VW. In the US alone, where close to 500,000 vehicles were found to have been rigged, Volkswagen is facing a lawsuit avalanche that could end up costing the company dearly.
On Tuesday, a court panel decided to consolidate more than 500 individual and class-action consumer lawsuits in the state of California. The Washington-based Environmental Protection Agency, which helped expose the fraud, has already warned that the automaker could be facing penalties of up to $18 billion in the US alone.
Despite the challenges ahead, CEO Müller said he remained optimistic. “The future of Volkswagen belongs to the brave,” he exclaimed.